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[Five minutes of... is a series of video game investigations by Margaret Robertson, former Edge magazine editor-in-chief and current development director of social game studio Hide&Seek. Here, she explores what five minutes of play reveals about a particular video game, this time focusing on the tension between gameplay and narrative in Valve's Portal 2.]
Good news, anyone who is busy or has dreadful spatial awareness: this is a column about Portal 2 you can read safe from the fear of spoilers, because it was written by someone who was too busy having dreadful spatial awareness to finish more than the first couple of hours.
Bad news, anyone who steamed through the entire game the in a single sitting: this is written resolutely from the perspective of someone who hasn't yet. There are things I don't realize yet -- haven't had a chance to realize yet -- that might have you tearing your hair out. I have put a huge amount of energy into not finding out how the game develops or ends. I really honestly don't know.
The five minutes of the game I want to talk about come at the end of test chamber 21, which isn't very far into the game at all. If you're someone with slightly more robust spatial awareness than me, test chamber 21 was probably only about 30 seconds of the game. I had a bit more standing around in mute bafflement to do than that, so for me it was five minutes.
It's not a complicated puzzle by any means. In fact, it's an unusually plain room. Airy, orthogonal, just on the tranquil side of silent. As I stand there, I can feel the meat of my brain gradually configure itself into the shape of the puzzle.
Once the shape of my brain matches the shape of the room, I know what to do. In fairly short order: light bridges are spidered up the walls, switches are switched, blocks are delivered, and I start to anticipate the little endorphin buzz I'll get from hearing the door unlock. Instead, with a pffzzt and a crash, my absent companion Wheatley smashes into the room with a new plan for escape.
Everyone loves Wheatley, not least because everyone loves Stephen Merchant. He is introduced in the game as a flawed, friendly figure to undercut GLaDOS' immaculate cruelty. With Wheatley around, there's always someone to feel smarter than, even when GLaDOS is making you feel dumb. He's on your side, full of jokes, happy to help. And in room 21 he rejoins you, ready to lead you to safety.
I had not missed him.
I was not pleased to see him.
He spoiled my test.
For me, in this moment, his arrival robbed me of the moment of completion I ought to have earned by figuring out the puzzle. He wasn't a savior: he was a distraction and a thief. And that colored my feelings about what happened next.
For Wheatley, the next sequence is one of his big moments. Following on from his surprise entrance, he leads you on a dramatically choreographed rollercoaster through the collapsing complex. He's leading you to safety with flair and desperate courage; risking himself to rescue you. The music makes it very clear that this bit is exciting. But, just as the ride starts, GLaDOS interjects: laconic, wry, untroubled. "But you were almost at the last test. It's right here -- wouldn't you like to try?"
And there it is: the shell of a little clean white puzzle, floating in the middle of all the crumbling industrial chaos.